Ron Ben-Yishai

Burning down the house

Op-ed: Fire shows how neglected infrastructure may lead to Israel’s national collapse

The first indication of America’s undermined status as an economic and political power was not the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan or the mortgage crisis. It was Hurricane Katrina that exposed the US Administration’s helplessness in all areas, ranging from the collapse of New Orleans dams, which the local government failed to maintain, to the outrageous performance of the federal emergency agency, which prompted that deaths of hundreds and caused many more to lose their homes.


This served as further evidence for a rule identified by historians a while ago: The moment a regime neglects the national, physical and human infrastructure and allows them to crumble, the state’s or empire’s collapse as a functioning body able to provide physical security and the vital needs of citizens begins.


This is what happened to the Roman and Ottoman empires, and to states like Yemen and Cuba in this day and age. This may also happen to us.


The State of Israel is at the onset of this slippery slope. It suffers from a grave water shortage because of the delayed construction of desalination plants, and the roads are jammed while lethal car accidents abound because of the absence of decent public transportation infrastructure. Yet the gravest issue is the neglect of rescue and firefighting services, which suffer chronic under-investment in equipment and manpower.


The helplessness shown by the firefighting force in the face of the catastrophic Carmel blaze, and earlier in the fire in Tel Aviv’s Shalom Tower, is merely a red hot highlight attesting to this neglect.


Missile threat looming


We must understand that the main strategic-military threat faced by the State of Israel today – the missile threat – is virtually identical to the threat posed by natural disasters. The deaths and injuries to be sustained by missile and rocket barrages will not be the result of direct hits but rather, the destruction of homes, fires, and the release of toxic substances towards residential areas.


These are precisely the same damages caused by huge fires, earthquakes, floods, and chemical plant mishaps. Well-equipped and well-organized rescue and firefighting services would be able to save the lives of people trapped in the top floors of high rises to the same extent as or more than the IDF’s well-oiled offensive force, which the State of Israel invests tens of billions of dollars in maintaining.


Yet the government refuses to provide the mere hundreds of millions or few billions required to set up a heavy duty rescue and firefighting force in Israel. Almost anything that doesn’t shoot is designated as third or fourth priority here, because the current government and its predecessors in the past decade refused to internalize the fact that the home front has become a main front at this time. Hence, we need to designate resources to enable it to cope with disasters, such as fires, whether they’ve been causes by missiles or civilian negligence.


The inability of firefighters to contain the Carmel blaze does not stem from lack of motivation or skill. The opposite is true: The firemen, police officers, Prison Service members and Magen David Adom paramedic showed exceptional courage and resourcefulness. Those at fault are the people who did not give these anonymous heroes a chance to win the battle by not providing them with equipment and failing to organize them well.


Enlist haredim, Arabs

Monitoring fire-prone sites on hot days and access to firefighting aircraft, cranes, readily available water depots and heavy bulldozers could have been used to overcome the blaze without having to beg Turkey and Bulgaria to rush aid. A national firefighting and rescue service reserve force could have prevented the fire department spokesman’s desperate plea to Eilat firemen to report to their station so they can be flown to Haifa.


What’s puzzling is that such reserves are available to the IDF Home Front Command, yet the disorderly structure of emergency services and cumbersome call-up procedure prevented these forces from quickly reaching the fire site.


The government and Knesset would be kind to Israeli citizens if they give up on establishing a commission of inquiry this time. A simple police probe would be enough to identify the fire’s causes and draw lessons. It would also be a pity to waste time and money on a committee that would look into the collapse of Israel’s firefighting force. Almost all figures and analysis are available in the state comptroller’s draft report to be published soon. We just need to implement this report.


The government can also adopt a bold step and obligate yeshiva students and young Arabs to be trained as firefighting and rescue forces to be available within 30 minutes for emergency operations at their communities. We are talking about tens of thousands of healthy males who are all familiar with the immense importance of saving lives.


However, the rabbis and imams of these people, and mostly their politicians – like Interior Minister Eli Yishai for example – prefer to see them laying tefillin and studying the Torah rather than contributing their part to saving lives. At most, they are willing to collect our bodies in the framework of the ZAKA rescue and recovery service.


Yet as long as the distorted budgetary, social, and moral priorities are not changed via government decisions and Knesset legislation, we’ll continue to sustain casualties and damages, and to beg foreigners to save us during crises.



פרסום ראשון: 12.04.10, 16:39
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